Yeon-Sik Hong, a cartoon artist, can’t concentrate on his work. There’s loud, constant noise outside his Seoul apartment. He’s on deadline, and his publisher keeps calling for a draft, but the honking won’t stop, and he just can’t focus. Uncomfortably Happily is a graphic memoir about Hong and his wife’s quest to find comfort by stepping outside the city grid in search of a solution to the noise pollution. It was translated from Korean by the American cartoonist Hellen Jo.
Like all cities, Seoul comes with a long list of challenges and inconveniences, as well as the illusion that leaving the city will make all of them disappear. No more noise. No more pollution. Affordable living.
Rather than simply settle in the outskirts of Seoul, the couple takes their idea a step further, and finds a house up a mountain in the countryside, about an hour and a half drive from the city. Since they don’t have a car, traveling by bus becomes a full day trip.
Living in the middle of a forest, almost completely isolated, they’ve finally found the respite they were seeking. Hong can concentrate on his work. But the countryside quickly proves to come with it’s own set of unending problems.
Their house is uncomfortably quiet at first, and they cannot sleep the first night. The location is so remote, even taxis won’t make the trip up the hill. Living on the mountain comes with it’s own share of expenses: transportation fares for the country buses and taxis add up quickly. It’s not long before their old dream of leaving the city morphs into a new dream of owning a car.
Uncomfortably Happily is both light-hearted and moving, a twist on the common urban challenges that often drive people to search for happiness elsewhere. Hong questions this idea, but in a humorous way. We watch as the couple goes from being strangers in the forest to planting a garden and adopting the animals on the mountain, struggling to adapt to the cold once winter arrives. They are excited to use briquette to save money and heat the huge house. The whole situation is a little humorous, a little surreal, but also simple and down to earth.
And yet, much remains the same. The deeper, existential problems don’t disappear. Hong, an artist, is stuck working on projects he’s not excited about for the pay check. Even though he’s creating a book of cartoons, what he loves to do, the work becomes frustrating. He wants to work on his own project, but he cannot find the time.
For the most part, Hong’s wife takes care of maintaining the house and cooking meals. She is an artist too, and though she wants to get a job, Hong encourages her to work on her own projects instead. She never went to art school; she perseveres and in the end wins an award for her work. Hong, on the other hand, is more of a perfectionist who wants to go back to school to finish his degree, and eventually returns.
As they navigate the challenges of their new home and their finances, the strength of their relationship and ability to rely on each other becomes clear. The intimacy between them is powerfully portrayed through subtle and quiet frames. In one scene, Hong gets back home late and his wife has already cooked food. He encourages her to finish the project she was working on but she insists on staying with him, for the simple pleasure of watching him eat.
The drawings express the depth of emotion of the couple’s experiences. Hong also playfully expresses darker feelings of rage and despair. He might be working, when suddenly, multiple Hongs appear in the same frame, all conflicting with one another. “You need to calm your soul,” one says, “I just want to rest,” says the other Hong. “I acknowledge that I’ve become a trivia expert while drawing educational comics.”
Though humorous and lighthearted, there is an existential discomfort throughout the book, about success, stability, and the meaning of being an artist. Hong struggles to find satisfaction in his career, and continually questions what it means to be an artist, especially when he isn’t doing work that makes him happy. At one point, he considers whether or not he’s running away from the city out of shame from not being successful enough in his career. Despite all the challenges however, the couple is perfectly content when they remember that they get to spend their time making art.
Their worries about success, stability and making ends meet do not get resolved by the end of the story, but after a year of improvising a new life in the forest, they decide to leave their new home, feeling more confident to embark on their next adventure.